Everything about a wedding seems steeped in symbolism and tradition. In today’s complex lifestyles it can be hard to decide which are right for your wedding. Should I wear a white dress if I have children? Can I still wear a veil if I have been married before? This will decode some of the traditions, their origins, and their current meanings to help you decide what is best for you.
The word wed is derived from the Greek for pledge. A wedding is all about one person pledging themselves to another. So no matter your culture, traditions or where you are married this should be the focus of the event.
Before the flowers are picked, the dress bought or vows written there is the engagement ring. The tradition of engagement rings goes back further than that of the wedding rings themselves. In old African custom the couple’s wrists were tied together with grass during the ceremony. When grooms negotiated the purchase of their brides, metal rings were given as partial payment. The type of metal was determined by the wealth of the groom. Gold rings were used as currency in ancient Egypt and a groom would place one on the third finger of the left hand of his intended to show he trusted her with his money. This finger was thought to house the vein through which love traveled to the heart and the rings are still worn their today. Wedding rings themselves did not come into play until around 1215 when the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church decreed that there should be a longer period between betrothal and marriage. Then a second ring began to be placed on the bride’s finger when she was wed.
Most people will use a wedding ring if not an engagement ring. The engagement ring has become more of a symbol of the intent to promise yourself to your intended. Economic circumstance often determines whether or not an engagement ring is given and the value of said ring. Most cultures use some type of ring exchange during the actual ceremony.
The white dress is largely thought to symbolize purity, but this was not always the case. Brides dressed in plain white were originally the poorest. It was to symbolize to all witnesses that they brought nothing to the wedding and their husband could not be held accountable for his bride’s debts. The more financially stable brides usually wore their Sunday best with different meanings being placed on the colors. Yellow meant jealousy so brides avoided it. Blue symbolized purity, constancy and loyalty while green meant youth. Often times the color of the dress was based solely on preference and what flattered the bride. Over the years the white dress came to be widely associated with purity. Today a white dress merely symbolizes the wedding. Anyone can wear one without worry including brides with children, brides approaching their second and third marriages and even pregnant brides.
The bridal veil traditionally stands for youth and virginity. This was not always the case. In the Far East women always wore veils to protect themselves from evil spirits. This tradition later evolved to symbolize chastity and obedience. In this way the wedding veil became a sign of the bride’s submission to her husband. Early Christians placed a cloth over both the bride and groom and the early Chinese carried an umbrella over the bride to be’s head. The style and meaning of the bride’s headdress has varied from culture to culture and time to time. Today it is appropriate for any bride to wear a veil. It is commonly thought best for a bride on her second and subsequent trips down the aisle not to wear the blusher style over her face. Brides with children before marriage are also encouraged to avoid this style but exception is often made if it is her first marriage.
The throwing of rice and shoes is still sometimes observed today. Today they are often thought to carry good luck, fertility and abundance. Originally, people believed that the bride and groom themselves spread good luck on their wedding day and anyone or anything that touched them would be blessed with this luck. People threw nuts and grains to guarantee themselves a good harvest. The shoes were a bit more complicated. When ancient Jews and Assyrians made a bargain a man would give his shoe as a sign of good faith and trust. They were seen as a symbol of authority and the transfer of the show was a transfer of authority. So the throwing of old shoes at weddings was meant to transfer authority of the bride from her father to her new husband.
Wedding flowers have been used in most cultures and times with wildly varying meanings. Polish tradition suggests sprinkling the bride’s bouquet with sugar to keep her sweet when she deals with her husband. A wreath of orange blossoms over the veil was a custom introduced by returning crusaders. Since they were so expensive only the wealthy could afford them and poorer brides began to use artificial blossoms. This is where artificial flowers are believed to have been introduced to bridal attire.
Chives, rosemary, garlic and other fragrant herbs were placed in the bridal bouquet in Sweden to keep the dwarfs and mischievous creatures away from the bride on her wedding day. Certain flowers are commonly thought to have certain meanings even today. Certain colors also inspire thoughts and wishes accordingly.
Some of the meanings associated with different flower types include:
- Apple blossoms–better things to come
- Rosebud – a promise
- Laurel – peace
- Orange blossoms – fertility
- Baby’s breath – fertility
- Lily of the Valley – happiness
- Red and white roses – unity in love
- Lilacs – youthful love
- Pansies and forget me nots – special friendship
- White lily – purity
Some of the meanings behind different colors include:
- Blue – Pure love, respect, piety, wisdom
- Blue violet – loyalty, faithfulness
- Red – power, passion, love
- Bright orange – love of glory
- Orange – fertility
- Yellow – friendship, jealousy
- White – purity
- Pink – happiness innocence and joy
- Green – youth and good fortune
Today the color and type of flower for the bride and her party are chosen more on preference than symbolism. Some bride’s may choose flattering or favorite color schemes. Others may have a love for a certain flower species. To the sentimental bride; however, some of these meanings can be taken to heart and they may choose accordingly.
The wedding cake has also transcended time and culture. Some of the oldest traceable wedding cakes involved different custom surrounding cakes made of meal being gifted, broken or used to symbolize fertility and abundance. It was the early British who began baking baskets of crackers for every guest to take home. This started the tradition of guests taking home wedding cake to “dream on”. The wedding cake today symbolizes fertility and richness of spirit, life and in material things for the young couple. The sharing of the cake symbolizes that they will share all these things.